A truly underrated aspect of filmmaking is cinematography. Cinematography is essentially the overseer in the process of filming a movie. While that basic description makes the job of a cinematographer sound quite simple, their role in filmmaking is a very important one. Cinematographers create a film’s visual look and style, which in a lot of ways takes a film from good to great. From Freddie Young’s iconic work in Laurence of Arabia to Emmanuel Lubezki’s breathtaking visuals in The Tree of Life, cinematographers really do play an essential role in filmmaking.
One of the better known cinematographers working today is Wally Pfister. Pfister is mostly known for his work along with Christopher Nolan in filming flicks like Inception and The Dark Knight. After years of assisting Nolan, Pfister is now finally moving into the director’s chair himself with Transcendence. Surrounded by a great cast of Nolan regulars and an interesting story, Transcendence seemed to be a promising project for Pfister to take on. Sadly though, Transcendence is a largely misguided effort.
Transcendence follows Dr. Will Caster, who after sustaining a gunshot wound at a conference, has his subconscious uploaded into a computer in a process called transcendence.
While Johnny Depp is the one on all of the posters for the film, the real star here is Rebecca Hall. Hall has mostly been a supporting player in good films like The Town, but really shines in the spotlight of being the lead here. Throughout the film, Hall perfectly displays Evelyn’s hardships as she witnesses what is becoming of her beloved husband with a real sense of weight and gravitas.
Transcendence also has a very well-established supporting cast full of talented actors. When he is not starring in camp crap like Priest, Paul Bettany has shown that he is actually a good actor. Bettany does a very respectable job here, and I hope this leads to more roles in serious films for him. Other Nolan regulars like Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy also do a solid job with their small roles in the film.
Visually the movie looks quite nice. Pfister chose the very talented Jess Hall as his cinematographer, who is mostly known for The Spectacular Now and Hot Fuzz. This is Hall’s first time shooting a film with a big budget, and really uses it to his advantage. Hall captures a lot of great shots utilizing the budget he has to work with. There are also a few uses of CGI when it comes to the action-packed finale, and the CGI looks seamless as ever.
What is most appreciated about Transcendence though is the film’s ambition. Most wide release these days have the simple goal of trying to entertain the popcorn-munching general audiences, and putting very little focus on trying anything very unique in story or theme. Transcendence is one of the rare big budget films that really goes out there when it comes to storytelling and its thematic material.
It’s one thing to have big aspirations, but it’s another to achieve those big aspirations, and Transcendence rarely follows through with its lofty messages. Transcendence largely wants to be about the dangers of pushing the boundaries of science, and whether or not scientists should be doing such. There also a few other messages sprinkled in like the disconnect that the internet is causing and the potential danger of technology, but all of these messages are covered at a very base level. These concepts all needed to be fleshed out more to have a big effect on the audience.
While most of the cast was solid, Johnny Depp for me was miscasted in my book. Depp does an adequate job, basically doing a monotone voice in a computer, but to me he is too big of a name to play this kind of part. Depp never disappears into the character of Will Caster, constantly reminding me that it was Depp when he was on screen. Personally, Depp just seemed to be in the film to get people in the seats, as his performance is really an uninspired one for the most part.
While Wally Pfister does a competent job as a director, there is a lot of room for improvement. What is most lacking in his direction is the ability to create mood. In slower-paced science fiction films like this, it’s paramount that there is a building mood to keep the audience hooked even when the pacing is quite slow. Pfister, though, fails to create any real sense of paranoia or feeling of building danger.
This lack of mood hurts the film in a big way during its second act, which to be honest is painfully dull and boring. With there being no real sense of build up, the second act basically just has characters doing certain actions with the audience being very much disconnected with whats going on. To be honest, very little of interest happens in this forty minute or so period, which is shocking considering that time could have been used to develop the characters or concepts a bit more.
Transcendence’s script was surprisingly listed on the Black List a few years back for being a highly admired unproduced script. Written by first time scribe Jack Paglen, Transcendence’s script is often times sloppy and even quite inept at points. With all these ideas about technology and characters and their constantly changing motives, the screenplay of the film largely loses focus throughout the film. While the initial plot and even the thematic concepts are quite interesting, there is just way too much going on for the film to ever convey them in a just manner.
Perhaps what Transcendence lacks the most though is an emotional core. It’s evident that the film tries to build one with the romance between Will and Evelyn Caster, but the script really did not develop their characters enough for me to care. There were a few moments in the first third that were actually quite effective with their relationship, but the final attempt at the end of the film to bring their characters full circle just did not come together as it should have.
Personally, Transcendence never should have been a big Hollywood production, because there really is no need for such a story like this to have big stars and special effects. While the action in the film looks quite good, it’s largely unnecessary and felt like a cheap attempt to entertain audiences. This film at its heart is trying to be an old-school science fiction film, with a slow pace and tackling themes relevant to today. That, though, is mixed with the need to make this film accessible to all audiences, which ends with neither goal being accomplished.
Transcendence has all the parts that make a great science fiction film, but is missing focus and more importantly a soul. It’s ironic that a film about the disconnection technology can bring disconnects with its audience to such a large degree.
Take a Drink: anytime a character mentions transcendence
Take Two Drinks: when Paul Bettany does
Take a Drink: for each plot hole
Do a Shot: during the ridiculous chase scene